G.H. Hovagimyan
March, 1997

Immersive computer generated environments are becoming the focus of much attention and speculation. The range of form and content although quite broad and interesting is still rather clunky. From cartoon like VRML avatars to Quick Time VR photography to naturalistic metaphors such as the one produced by Char Davies there's a lot of focus around form. It seems that what a viewer/interfacer gains from engaging in an immersive environment is not even considered. There are exceptions of course. These tend to be in the realm of flight simulation and medical applications. Of course Hollywood and the Disney entertainment monster see immersion as the next step to theme parks and blockbuster movies.

Immersion in an environment has been around for a long time. It seems to be a natural function of human art, architecture and symbolic development. 30,000 years ago the cave painters created immersive environments. Imagine crawling one hundred feet into the ground to get to one of the chambers where the caverns opened up to a large expanse of painted glyphs. The artists who painted the glyphs knew what they were doing was important. It had to be preserved, encapsulated. This was a jump in consciousness to symbol making and representation. There is speculation as to the meaning and use of the caverns, something on the order of a religious chamber or a ritual environment. Maybe, but what is evident is what is most simple. This was an area removed from the daily occupations of life. It was made to be preserved, and one was immersed in an experiential/ symbolic environment. I personally feel that all of the sociological and religious speculation surrounding early cave paintings obscures these simple facts.

From our Western capitalist 20th century perspective we always search for a practical use, a commodity of some sort. In terms of immersion we invariably resort to entertainment, or games or training lessons. But what if the caves were teaching centers or places where humans learned to think abstractly through symbols? Do we need to muddy this concept by alluding to a religious ritual?

I believe there is a much simpler explanation. Let's say you are the artist responsible for the paintings. You convince an acquaintance or a group of people to go down into the cave. They are afraid but they follow you. When the group arrives they are astounded. They see life all around them represented by symbols. They are transfixed in some manner and when they return to the surface they look at everything around them with a different awareness.They think of themselves differently. This perhaps is a more appropriate model for immersion than entertainment. It does hold some classic psychological thresholds. One is removed from daily life. One goes through a passage of some sort to arrive at the immersive environment. The experience changes ones awareness upon return.

Within our commodity driven global world this sort of experience is rare indeed. Can you imagine trying to convince Disney to fund an immersive project that will change peoples awareness of life and elevate their consciousness in a profound manner? Not likely. Yet the desire for this type of evolution of awareness is deep within humanity.

Indeed progressive and changing awareness is one of the constants in human life. What we tend to categorize as a religious experience is a shift in consciousness. That shift in consciousness is also the domain of the artist. The artist seeks out that awareness and tries to communicate or create the same shift in others. Repeated ritual behavior, especially religious practices, tend to be a commemoration of a shift in awareness. The ritual somehow tries to evoke the experience without understanding the cause of the shift. This is usually a hollow exercise that is couched in the words of mystery, initiation etc.

If my supposition about the effects of immersion in a cave painting environment is correct, no religious or ritual behavior was involved. However I am assuming the meaning of religious practice to be the sense one gets now in the 20th century. Perhaps in the primal past of humanity a gathering to advance the awareness of a tribe would be a ritual or religious practice. We have no way of knowing.

Let's think about this primal immersive event. The main elements are contained space and symbols representing life activities. This is an abstract space. It exists and has meaning because it is different from normal life. It is a space at once physical in the grandiosity of the cave and immaterial in the glyphs. However the intention is to alter the awareness of the group or individual. The result occurs not in the immersive space but upon return to normal life. It is an imprint and it is permanent.

Several other complex factors may have been in operation in this primal past. Knowing the natural tendencies of humans to groupings of families, tribes, nations and so forth one must assume a social order of some sort. Within this order there is indeed repeated, ritual behavior in the form of dance, various solar commemorations, courtship, marriage and so forth. In our modern religious practices these are fundamental. I cannot imagine a young couple crawling down into a cave to be married in an immersive glyph environment. It seems inappropriate, even in a primal past. No, I believe the descent into immersion was an event unto itself.

What was the awareness one returned with? We have no way of knowing. My sense is that humanity discovered an abstract universe of thought different from normal life. The presentation of the animal glyphs, the hunters and so forth in the immersive environment was not the main event. It is a mistake to fetishize the art object/ event while eschewing the experience which powers it. This is the dilemma we face at the end of the 20th century. Our society in America and indeed the world cries out for transformative situations. This is the power intrinsic to the art experience. What we get instead is the display of commodities, the latest fashions in art to purchase and large scale entertainment events. The artist is given one choice: become a commodity or perish. Understand this, a tranformative event is not entertainment.

My recent experiences with two way video teleconferencing and performance via the internet lead me to believe that a dynamic new model for transformative immersive environments is taking shape. Within a simple CU-SeeMe interface the event is porous. People log on to a conference and their faces show up on the screen. They are integrated into the event. This is immersion. They are part of the performance and not just a passive audience. Further they direct how the situation develops through chat.

The location for a CU-SeeMe event is in cyberspace and exists more in the social connections occurring during the event. The location is in the minds of the participants. There is a transformation because of the connection. There is a sense of abstract space that is different from normal space.

What happens in these performative events is similar to what in my opinion occurred in the caverns 30,000 years ago. Normal life is represented in an immersive space through glyphs. In this instance the normal life represented by the glyphs are various art performances, music, dance and social interactions. The transformation occurs with the awareness of a break with the entertainment/ commodity format. The consciousness is one of connection to other people . This is not the repetitive ritual nor is it the packaged reproducible commodity.

There are some ground rules however. First the event/ environment must be encapsulated. It must have a time limit and a general agreed upon theme. Second; it must not be scripted or follow an entertainment format. Third and most importantly, it must be organized through personal contact. Remember my story about the artist leading the group down into the cavern. In this instance the artist must lead the group into the immersive environment. The group must distinguish between normal life and immersion.

Normal life is shaped by day to day interactions, such as monetary activities, earning a living, shopping, raising a family, accessing entertainment and so forth. Immersion seeks to transform consciousness. Immersion is not teaching. It is not religion. It is very close to art in the primal sense. The end result of an immersive event is to totally transform the awareness of the participants. When they return to normal life they see the potential of a new society. This society is post-consumer. They are free to look at their current situation from outside normal life. They can gain satisfaction, happiness and genuine feelings by means other than entertainment or consumption.

G.H. Hovagimyan
March, 1997